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The Week: constitutional crisis and dreamworld Wikipedias
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ConsitutionDAO, the effort by an army of crypto/web3 guys to pool together enough money to buy the sole remaining privately-owned copy of the US Constitution at auction, did not succeed:
A quickly assembled group of crypto enthusiasts who crowdfunded an astonishing $47 million in funds to bid for a rare copy of the US Constitution lost out to a bidder with deeper pockets.
The group, ConstitutionDAO, said in an update on Discord that they did not win the auction at Sotheby’s tonight, which sold for a total of $43.2 million. The DAO’s organisers believed they would not have enough money to “insure, store, and transport the document” if they had made a higher bid.
The group assembled over the past week, mostly, it seems, because it seemed like a bunch of randos on the internet buying an important historical document would be a funny thing to do. Somehow, they managed to get enough interest to raise a huge sum in Ether. The organisers say they will refund all contributors, minus Ethereum network fees.
I wrote about ConstitutionDAO earlier this week for subscribers. I contributed to it – as a bit of an experiment, mostly – to the grand sum of 0.01 ETH1, which would have entitled me to a paltry 10,000 PEOPLE tokens for voting on governance of the document. (Given the opportunity, I would have voted to burn it.)
There are a few takeaways I had from this whole thing. The first is that it was, despite its ultimate failure, a reasonably effective demonstration of the capability of DAOs as an organisational structure (Or, at the very least, as a crowdfunding enterprise.) There’s little reason something kind of like this couldn’t have been executed on GoFundMe or a similar platform, but I do think something about the particular sense of ownership conferred by a DAO successfully incentivised quite vigorous collective behaviour towards a common goal. It did raise nearly $50 million in a matter of days, which is nothing to sniff at. It had all the animating mania of NFTs, but was directed towards something which certainly seemed to be serving a ‘realer’ purpose than trading cartoons back and forth as they accrue value. It has a real-world output. This may either inspire or frighten you.
Secondly: rich guys stay winning. The Wall Street Journal reports that the winning bidder is Chicago hedge-fund billionaire and prominent Republican donor Kenneth Griffin. If you wanted to dream up the perfect foil for a nominally collective project to reclaim American democracy for the people, you couldn’t do much better than that. The old order still has teeth.
Lastly — and I say this as someone who pitched in, for unclear reasons — the whole thing felt a little, well, naff. I fully accept that this is largely an aesthetic judgement, but I just do not vibe at all with the starry-eyed pronouncements that a collective of ten thousand Discord addicts owning and publicly displaying the document is hugely more democracy-enabling than one rich guy doing the same. The fact that it’s all couched in crypto lingo and Gary Vee-adjacent hustlespeak gives it an overall annoying vibe.
I’ve been enjoying Max Read’s newsletter, which covers a lot of the similar ground as The Terminal, and his post about ConstitutionDAO assembled some thoughts resembling my own reflexive reaction to the cultural dimension of this world:
What I am prepared to say is that the culture of web3 on Twitter is truly one of the wackest subcultures I’ve ever encountered in my entire life. These people organized what is basically a $40 million flash mob to buy the U.S. constitution in order to preserve it for future generations?? And got upset when they lost?? Venture capitalists making Nic Cage jokes is “web3 at its best”??
I keep encountering these 20something guys who tweet LinkedIn-type Success Win bromides in a voice I can only describe as the zoomer version of Elon Musk, and it feels like when you accidentally land on a Christian rock radio station and can sense that while all the elements of “rock music” are present, there’s just something ineffably off about the whole business.
A tidbit on DeFi
I thought this was interesting from a publication by the United States’ SEC on DeFi risks. Specifically it calls out the general assumption in the crypto world that more visibility — like through public blockchains or openly viewable code — naturally means more transparency and therefore more informed outcomes for people.
Here’s Caroline A. Crenshaw:
First, although transactions often are recorded on a public blockchain, in important ways, DeFi investing is not transparent. I am concerned that this lack of transparency contributes to a two tier market in which professional investors and insiders reap outsized returns while retail investors take more risks, get worse pricing, and are less likely to succeed over time ….
Some contend that DeFi is, in fact, more egalitarian and transparent because much of the activity is based on code that is publicly available. However, only a relatively small group of people can actually read and understand that code, and even highly-qualified experts miss flaws or hazards. Currently the quality of that code can vary drastically, and has a significant impact on investment outcomes and security. If DeFi has ambitions of reaching a broad investing pool, it should not assume a significant portion of that population can or wants to run their own testnet to understand the risks associated with the code on which their investment prospects rely.
I see a lot of this in the emerging internet. Total transparency — as long as you’re willing to invest a significant amount of time developing quite sophisticated domain knowledge. I get the sense there’s always going to be a large section of the population who won’t do that. How do they fit in?
Allow me a brief pause to celebrate one of the best and most underrated long-running threads on Twitter, which imagines with sickening accuracy how Orson Welles might weigh in on various events and happenings in contemporary popular culture.
I’ll expand on this in a longer post this coming week, but one thing I keep coming back to while looking at the rapidly emerging new phase of the internet is how it’s playing out as the inverse of Wikipedia.
I think it’d be pretty uncontroversial to say that Wikipedia is probably the best product of the Web 2.0 era. A true post-scarcity information product, it centrally compiled a vast quantity of expert knowledge and made it easily and freely accessible. It has deep-rooted problems — like the fact a vast majority of edits are compiled by a small number of editors, or that it faces constant (and public!) struggles with bias and disinformation — but few at this point would disagree that it’s genuinely one of the most phenomenal knowledge resources the world has ever seen, and its influence on human society and knowledge is probably so broad as to be incalculable. Almost everyone begins the process of learning about a new topic by reading the Wikipedia page.
Furthermore, it’s all based around the simple idea that people will share this kind of information on an entirely voluntary basis. The current trend on the internet, is a turn away from this embrace of free exchange and post-scarcity. More traditional concepts of ownership and scarcity are being reintroduced and enforced through the blockchain.
It makes you wonder: if Wikipedia never existed, and someone tried to design it today, what sort of principles would they abide by? Would it be a blockchain project? Would it be funded through the issuance of tokens, with holders of tokens given particular voting rights over its direction? It’s not difficult to imagine a reality where one could trade WIKI tokens on an online marketplace. This introduces far more complicated notions of governance than currently exists with Wikipedia and the Wiki Foundation, I think.
There have actually been efforts to build decentralised encyclopaedias along these lines. One is named Lunyr, and it promises the exciting opportunity to “contribute and peer review information for CBN and HNR points” and then “withdraw CBN points for LUN”. Very compelling.
I wrote a little piece for a new publication about storytelling called The Story, about the narrative or fan fictional quality of conspiracy theory.
I’m on the first episode of James Colley’s new podcast, talking about digital ape heists (which I wrote about for subscribers here). The podcast is five hours long, I have a little segment in there somewhere.
I thought this was interesting on the other side of the Substack/newsletter boom: how one actually, you know, stops doing it. I have no intention of stopping, for what it’s worth, but every time a new yearly subscription comes through I mentally note, “Okay, there’s another year I have to do this to give this person value.” Working outside an institution does have its obvious downsides.
A story from inside the Bored Ape Yacht Club party. I tell ya what, they should stick to ape-based pseudonymity, because actually seeing these guys does rob it of a bit of its intrinsic mystique. Even The Strokes can’t balance that one out.
After the tragic crowd crush during Travis' Scott’s performance at Astroworld, there was a weird current of online discussion which seemed fixated on understanding the event as some kind of Satanic ritual sacrifice. It sort of went beyond the usual QAnon-adjacent stuff — look at the comments of any footage related to the event on TikTok and you’ll see lots of Zoomers calling it ‘demonic’. Thought this was pretty interesting on all that.
An interesting and long interview with the CEO of a company that makes third-party phone chargers, on why its such a complex business.
A comprehensive read on the war between NFT guys and furries.
Thought this was an absolutely fascinating podcast episode about ASML, the Dutch company which has an effective monopoly on the construction of extreme ultraviolet lithographic machines, which are essential to creating cutting edge microchips.
This feature on surveillance in Singapore’s aspiring techno-utopia.
A feature from Atlas Obscura on the theft of the “Irish crown jewels”.
This profile of David Graeber was a nice read.